Arkadi Gontmakher, a Ukraine-born American had been buying crabs in Russia for the U.S. market for years when, one day in 2007, he was arrested in Moscow and charged with poaching, money laundering and organizing a “criminal community.” He’d been dealing with boat owners whose captains routinely offloaded over-quota catches in a South Korean port.
He languished in jail for nearly three years until his case came to trial. It is widely believed that inspectors and border guards are bribed in the Russian crab business; however, Gontmakher had not engaged in this and said he was under no obligation to determine from boat owners the legality of their catches.
Last December he was acquitted in a court in Kamchatka on Russia’s Pacific coast. While still in the courtroom, he was rearrested on the same charges. Because he had been having heart trouble he was taken to a hospital instead of jail. It could not treat his ailment so he was allowed to fly to Moscow where an operation for arrhythmia was proposed. He declined for fear commercial rivals would arrange for him to be killed on the operating table.
The U.S. Embassy asked for his release on humanitarian grounds to fly to the U.S. for an operation. There had been no action by the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Munich early this February. She raised the matter in their meeting. On February 20, Gontmakher was suddenly released, put on a plane and was home with his family in Bellevue, Washington, the next day.
That is how the State Department can work when it puts its collective mind to something. Compare it to Zack Shahin’s case in Dubai. A Lebanon-born American, Shahin was an Ohio businessman who spent several years working for PepsiCo in the Middle East when opportunities in Dubai beckoned. The emirate had embarked on a major development program to build hotels, office buildings, apartments, marinas — part of a plan to become a regional financial center.
In 2002, Shahin was a founder of Deyaar Realty, a property development company. By 2008 it had become the second largest in Dubai. On March 23 that year, police raided his home and arrested him. He was held incommunicado for two weeks, then forced to sign documents he could not read. He was told that if he did not, his wife would be arrested and his children taken by the state.
Thirteen months later he was finally charged with embezzling $100,000 from his company. The chairman and board of directors had approved that transaction as a bonus. This was verified by Ernst & Young, the company’s Certified Public Accountants.
Shahin has sought to post bail pending his trial, to no avail. His health has declined steadily. He has high blood pressure and cholesterol, a stomach ulcer and a slipped disk. In 2009 he underwent knee surgery for injuries received during his first two weeks of incarceration (when, he claims, he was tortured). A neck injury and heart issues required operations, as well. The doctor wanted him to stay in the hospital for six weeks of recuperation and physical therapy. When he agreed, security agents moved into his room, with the television on continuously and talking loudly. When he complained, he was told this would stop if he went back to jail. He did so without completing the recovery process.
He is one of several expatriate executives who have been arrested in Dubai on dubious charges. It may be no coincidence that the arrests occurred after Dubai’s government investment fund realized it had made several bad investments and was losing money. Hints have been made to Shahin representatives that a large amount of cash could smooth the way to his release. Meanwhile, no trial date has been set.
Letters by Shahin’s U.S. Senators and Representatives on his behalf have been ignored by Dubai. So have three State Department diplomatic notes. A meeting to see Shahin by our ambassador was canceled by Dubai authorities. It’s clear that the difference in the outcomes to date in the two cases is the personal involvement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She considered Gontmakher’s plight to be important enough to risk a setback in the U.S.-Russia relations “re-set,” but has not yet been willing to risk offending the UAE by making Shahin an issue.
Russia, for all its flaws, has a record on democracy that compares favorably to that of the UAE, an undisguised authoritarian operation. While the UAE’s energy resources are worthy of respect, they can’t compare with Russia’s, which also has the world’s only nuclear arsenal comparable to that of the U.S. Mrs. Clinton took a chance in raising the Gontmakher case and got the right result. Therefore, nothing should stop her from publicly insisting on Shahin’s release on humanitarian grounds. The only risk is that some UAE noses might temporarily get bent out of shape. It’s worth it.